Black Milk: Never Dated

Black Milk is both one of Detroit’s dopest producers and one of its best emcees. I’ve been saying for years now that, as dudes who do double duty in the studio, Black Milk and Cadence Weapon succeed where Kanye West fell off. That’s not to make it a zero-sum game. It’s just to say that when it comes to beat-makers on the mic, Black Milk is “here to save the game like a memory card.”

Black Milk was born when new wave music was at its very peak. To wit, The Police played New York’s Shea Stadium right around the time Milk was joining the populous of Detroit, Michigan. He started out in music loading in gear and then banging out beats for Slum Villiage. Influenced by the sounds of The Native Tongues, DJ Premier, J. Dilla, Pete Rock, and I dare say New Wave, his first solo joints, 2005’s Sound of the City (Music House) and 2006’s Broken Wax (Fat Beats) made promises that 2007’s Popular Demand (Fat Beats) and 2008’s Tronic (Fat Beats) delivered on. He’s since worked with Danny Brown, Canibus, Proof, Pharoahe Monch, GZA, KRS-One, Buckshot, Big Pooh, Bun B, Pete Rock, Guilty Simpson, Ruste Juxx, Black Thought, and Jack White, among many others. In addition, along with Guilty Simpson and The Mighty Sean Price, Black Milk is a member of the hip-hop power trio, Random Axe.

Album of the Year, so named because it dropped almost exactly a year after Tronic‘s release, is a mixed bag in the best possible way. Black Milk’s production thrives on a blend of jarring elements that ease the edges of each other. Case-in-point and one of my favorite Milk tracks, “Deadly Medley,” featuring Royce da 5’9″ and Elzhi, is a hectic blend of twangy, barely tuned guitars, insistent airhorns, big, booming drums, and some of the best lines of late (e.g., track underdog, Elzhi’s saying, “Pockets go green like it was Earth Day/ That’s why I blow cake like it’s my birthday”).

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Black Milk builds the best of both by boldly releasing instrumentals and touring with his live band, Nat Turner. His 2013 record, No Poison, No Paradise (Fat Beats/Computer Ugly), showed a deeper shade of soulful darkness. It’s more introspective but no less inventive. “I feel like that album was me reinventing myself,” he tells Darcy McDonald of Cult Montreal, “whether for the fans that already knew about my catalogue beforehand, or if you weren’t that familiar with my music, you were kind of introduced to a version of Black Milk that’s totally different from what I started out with. It’s a more personal album, a more conceptual album. So I think it was, more so, me reinventing myself as an artist, and definitely as a writer.”

Late last year, Milk released If There’s a Hell Below (Fat Beats/Computer Ugly), possibly his last solo effort for a while. “I’m about to jump into a Random Axe album with Guilty and Sean Price,” he says. “For the next year or couple of years, I’m gonna try to focus more on production and beats versus solo rap albums. So over the next year or so, you’re gonna hear some different artists over the top of my production.”

Black Milk and I were supposed to talk a few years ago, but I got the times mixed up and missed him. Phone lag. Maybe it’s for the best. In the studio or live on the mic, Black Milk makes music that exists outside of timezones.

Scanning the Skies for Daylight Deities

Belief in aliens is often used as a trope on television and movies to signify instability or insanity. The hundreds of accounts available consist largely of unverifiable evidence and arguments that are shaky at best. Many of the reporters of alien phenomena seek to find them. Their seeking is “wishful thinking” in the words of Carl Jung (1964, p. 69). Yet, in his one book on the subject, Jung (1978) admits that “a purely psychological explanation is illusory, for a large number of observations point to natural phenomenon, or even a physical one” (p. 132). “Something is seen, but we don’t know what,” he adds (p. 136). The witnesses fall into a few distinct categories: those prone to fantasy and self-delusion (of course), those who are awake and outdoors at odd hours (security staff and police officers), and those attuned to the skies (pilots and air traffic controllers). My dad is one of the latter:

Me: How long have you been working in air traffic?

Dad: 43 years total.

Me: Have you ever seen a UFO?

Dad: Not that I can document, but I’ve seen a couple of things I had no other explanation for other than maybe a reflection of light.

I want to believe.

The best way to prepare for the future is to keep an eye on the sky. That’s where everything else is not. Meanwhile, information pours invisibly across its friendly expanse, and it is up to us to absorb as much of it as our systems can tolerate. — Ted Mooney’s Easy Travel to Other Planets

The descriptions in the many reports I’ve read seem either embellished or evasive, imbued with insistence depending on how much the witness wants to believe. There’s just no way to tell if anyone has actually seen anything. The very designation “unidentified flying object” is so ambiguous as to be nearly useless. The Condon Report (1969), the culmination of all of the Air Force’s investigations into so-called sightings (e.g., Project Sign, Project Grudge, Project Blue Book, etc.), defines a UFO as follows:

An unidentified flying object is here defined as the stimulus for a report made by one or more individuals of something seen in the sky (or an object thought to be capable of flight but seen when landed on earth) which the observer could not identify as having ordinary natural origin, and which seemed to him [sic] sufficiently puzzling that he [sic] undertook to make a report of it… (p. 9).

In filing the report, one is saying that the sighting was “sufficiently puzzling” enough to file the report. It’s not so much defining what a UFO is as it’s defining what filing the report means. The Air Force either took the reports seriously enough or just received so many of them that they had to make them the subject of several official projects. Ex-Project Blue Book member Fritz Werner (not his real name) said in an interview that Blue Book existed because the Air Force “was getting too much publicity and there were too many people, other than official people seeing things and reporting them” (quoted in Randle, 1995, p. 58).

Heaven's GateSome such reporters, as in the case of cults like Heaven’s Gate, build religions around their search for truth. Balch and Taylor’s germinal 1976 Psychology Today article “Salvation in a UFO” describes Heaven’s Gate members as “metaphysical seekers”: “Before joining [Heaven’s Gate], members of the UFO cult had organized their lives around the quest for truth. Most defined themselves as spiritual seekers” (p. 60).

In Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion (NYU Press, 2014), Benjamin E. Zeller concurs. In and out of other such groups before settling with Heaven’s Gate, the founders and members could all be described as seekers. Zeller’s study of his subject is through religious scholarship. Contra the media’s reports of Heaven’s Gate’s mass suicides in March of 1997, Zeller writes, “Heaven’s Gate emerged out of two theological worlds: Evangelical Christianity and the New Age movement, particularly the element of the New Age movement concerned with alien visitation and extraterrestrial contact. The movement’s leaders and members certainly drew from a broad array of influences, including secular ufology, science fiction, and conspiracy theories, in addition to their religious influences. Yet ultimately the group’s theology was a Christian one, as read through a New Age interpretive lens” (p. 65). The New Age aspect included the belief that in synchronized suicide, they were to board a UFO following the Hail-Bopp comet to salvation.

Where Jung saw the UFO phenomenon as seekers longing for a more complete life, Michael Heim (1998) sees it as “technology sickness” (p. 182). Heim (1993) posited Alternate World Syndrome (AWS): The switching between virtual and real worlds highlights the merging of technology with the human species, an extremely alien feeling we have yet to assimilate. It’s the ontological jet lag that comes from visiting or envisioning another, alien world. Heim (1998) writes, “The fascination and pain of the UFO phenomenon shows us only the first glimpse of our ultimate merger with technology” (p. 197).

The Secret Space AgeFrom merging with technology to escaping the end of the world, The Secret Space Age (Adventures Unlimited Press, 2014) tells the story of a parallel space program bent on abandoning Earth before the Apocalypse. The book follows the controversy behind Alternative Three (1977), a film that supposedly shows the development of alternative settlements on the Moon and Mars. Written with the language and excitement of a senior thesis, The Secret Space Age is a fun romp through conspiracy theories of all kinds. It’s less about aliens coming here and more about our leaving. As Michael Heim (1998) puts it, “What a thrill to feel the tug of war on the thin thread of shared belief!” (p. 174). A tug of war indeed: Out for some person-on-the-street verisimilitude on the reported sightings at O’Hare International in 2007, WGN Reporter Juan Carlos landed a minute and a half with this seeker of truth:

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References:

Balch, Robert W. & Taylor, David. (1976). Salvation in a UFO. Psychology Today, 10(5), 58-60.

Heim, Michael. (1993). The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Heim, Michael. (1998). Virtual Realism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jung, Carl G. (1964). Man and His Symbols. New York: Bantam.

Jung, Carl G. (1978). Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mooney, Ted. (1981). Easy Travel to Other Planets. New York: Ballantine Books, p. 74.

Philips, Olav. (2015). The Secret Space Age. Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press.

Randle, Kevin D. (1995). A History of UFO Crashes. New York: Avon Books.

Zeller, Benjamin E. (2014). Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion. New York: NYU Press.

Keeping Records with Christian Marclay

John Cage once said, “…music instructs us, that the uses of things, if they are meaningful, are creative; therefore the only lively thing that will happen with a record, is, if somehow you could use it to make something which it isn’t.” (quoted in Block & Glasmeier, 1989, p. 73). As much as any legitimate Hip-hop turntablist, Christian Marclay has made a career of repurposing vinyl records. Exhibits that include rearranging record cover art into new pieces, lining a gallery floor with records for patrons to walk upon (and then playing those trampled records later), and of course manipulating records on turntables to create new sound collages have all been parts of his extensive body of work.

Christian Marclay: Tone Arms

The punk movement was a liberating influence, with its energy, its non-conformism, its very loud volume of sound. Its amateurish, improvised side gave me the courage to make music without ever having studied it — Christian Marclay (quoted in Szendy, 2000, p. 89).

Like two of his more obvious forebears, John Cage and Brian Eno, Marclay is more artist than musician. Hew told Kim Gordon (2005), “I went to art school, not to music school. I don’t think like a musician” (p. 10). To wit, he’s worked in many other media besides sound. Readymades, collages, video, and performances all find their way into his work. “The more I worked with records,” Marclay told Alan Licht (2003), “the more I realized the potential of all the sounds generated with just a turntable and a record and started to appreciate all thes eunwanted sounds that were traditionally rejected: skipping, clicks and pops, all this stuff that people didn’t want. I started using these sounds for their musical quality and doing all kinds of aggressive, destructive stuff to the records for the purpose of creating new music” (p. 89).

On & By Christian MarclayIn On & By Christian Marclay, edited by Jean-Pierre Criqui (MIT Press, 2014), Marclay adds, “I try to make people aware of these imperfections, and accept them as music; the recording is a sort of illusion; the scratch on the record is more real” (p. 42). He questions each medium itself in terms of itself. One of the most extensive explorations of his work, On & By Christian Marclay boasts pieces by Douglas Kahn, David Toop, Zadie Smith, and Roalind Kraus, among many others, as well as several artist statements and interviews with Marclay himself. It’s as good a place as any to start and an essential text for anyone already familiar.

Borrowing term “telegramophony” from Derrida (1987, p. 90), Peter Szendy writes of Marclay’s Telephones (1995), “The fact remains that Christian Marclay does not reject this ghostly, phantasmal telegramophony. He plays with it, trifles with it, turns it into the tacked-on plot of his story/ies. Of his stories without a story, abstract like the color charts of memory, but each time concretely arresting like a call that cannot be delayed” (p. 115). Marclay uses the broken metaphor, “Memory is our own recording device” (quoted in Khazam, 2000, p. 31), but his works can be seen as montages of broken metaphors. There seems to be something damaged or at least slightly off about the connections he makes and breaks. “For a fragment of the past to be able to be touched by the present,” wrote Walter Benjamin (1999), “there must be no continuity between them” (p. 470). This temporal discontinuity and its interstitial ghosts are the raw stuff that Marclay works with. Records, tapes, telephones—the fragmented ghosts of history are in there, speaking out and seeking their way out of the threshold.

Is history simply a matter of events that leave behind those things that can be weighed and measured—new institutions, new maps, new rulers, new winners and losers—or is it also the result of moments that seem to leave nothing behind, nothing but the mystery of spectral connections between people long separated by place and time, but somehow speaking the same language?
— Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces

Christian Marclay: Record Without a CoverGreil Marcus (1989) describes punk as remaining “suspended in time” (p. 2), an unfinished nihilistic revolution. And just as punk has a dubious relationship with Dada and the Situationist International, so does Marclay. Guy Debord‘s first book, Mémoires (1959), was bound in sandpaper to wreck the books filed next to it on the shelf. Noise-punk band White‘s “Life on the Ranch of Elizabeth Clare Prophet” 7″ record (1996) came bound in a self-destructive sandpaper sleeve. Christian Marclay released Record Without a Cover (1985/1999), which is just what its name implies, with the same thought in mind: This record will sound different every time you play it. Its slow decay will become a part of its performance. Leaving the record unsleeved and unprotected was an act of creative destruction.

“The loss of control in music is actually what interests me the most,” Marclay tells Russell Ferguson (Criqui, 2014), “The struggle between control and loss of control is so much the core of improvised music. Many artists have been interested in that threshold between determinacy and indeterminacy, and not just John Cage, but also Duchamp, Pollock, Burroughs, and others” (p. 76).

The exploration of the land between those lines now belongs to Christian Marclay.

———-

Here’s Marclay live on the October 29, 1989 episode of the short-lived music television show Night Music:

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References:

Benjamin, Walter. (1999). The Arcades Project. Cambridge: Belknap Press.

Block, Ursula & Glasmeier, Michael. (1989). Broken Music: Artists’ Recordworks. Berlin, Germany: Berliner Kunstlerprogramm des DAAD.

Criqui, Jean-Pierre. (2014). On & By Christian Marclay. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Debord, Guy. (1959). Mémoires. France: Allia.

Gordon, Kim. (2005). Interview with Christian Marclay. In Christian Marclay (pp. 6-21). New York: Phaidon Press.

Marcus, Greil. (1989). Lipstick Traces: A secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 4.

Szendy, Peter. (2007). Christian Marclay on the Phone. In RE:Play. Zurich: jrp/ringier.

Szendy, Peter. (2000). Le son en Image. L’Ecoute. Paris: Ircam/L’Harmattan.

Conjuring Infinity: The Dark Reach of Black Metal

At barely thirty years old, black metal is a relatively young musical genre. Its roots running back to such thrash acts as Celtic Frost, Venom, Bathory, and Slayer, it finally found fertile ground in Scandinavia in the late 1980s/early 1990s. This second wave, including such bands as Mayhem, Darkthrone, Burzum, and Emperor, is what most are referring to when they utter the words. As author Ulrike Serowy puts it, black metal is “music that touches the inmost depths, goes beyond words, music that conjures infinity” (p. 33). Dayal Patterson points out that black metal “will surely continue to innovate and evolve, and this should be celebrated” (p. 484). Serowy’s new novella and Myrkur’s new EP both show how far this style has spread since its spiked-leather beginnings.
Skogtatt logo by Aaron Turner
Ulrike SerowySerowy’s Skogtatt (Hablizel, 2014), is the first piece of fiction to capture the spirit of black metal. It tells the story of a young man lost in a wintery forest, his car having left him stranded after band practice, a black metal black mass: “Together they create an invocation, ever and again, over and over they call on something for which they yearn, something they never the less fear.” His struggles in the dark reflect the struggles of black metal as a genre and of humans as a species: nature versus technology, humanism versus misanthropy, love versus hate, silence versus sound. The protagonist’s long, lonely walk in the woods gives way to the introspection so central to the appeal of black metal. SkogtattThe rhythm of the story is reminiscent of a song. It’s no surprise that Serowy also plays guitar.

With illustrations by Faith Coloccia and a logo by Aaron Turner, (both of Mamiffer) and an English translation by Samuel Willcocks, Skogtatt is a true metal artifact without ever directly mentioning metal. It’s the perfect bedtime read as winter approaches here in the West. It’s as scary as it is unsettling, as dark as it is daring, as mysterious as it is moving, an intoxicating visit to the cold land of death. Couple it with Cult of Luna’s Eviga Riket (2012), and you’ll have all-metal dreams.

Myrkur: Amalie Bruun

Screaming is one of the rewarding parts about black metal, both to listen to and to do myself. It releases a fraction of the anger and hatred I have inside me. — Amalie Bruun, Myrkur

MyrkurMyrkur’s self-titled debut EP (Relapse, 2014) alloys black metal’s core aesthetic (e.g., frenetic, tremelo strumming, blast beats, screaming vocals) with haunting female choral arrangements. Before becoming a model and a musician in other genres, Amalie Bruun grew up with this music. She told Wyatt Marshall, “I was born and raised on the northern coast of Denmark. I have written this music for years by myself in my house in Denmark. Black metal comes from my part of the world, Scandinavia, and has its roots in the Nordic nature that I hold so dear and also our ancient pagan religion of Norse Mythology and our folk music.” Patterson continues, “it should also be remembered that many of the most powerful efforts have come from bands utilizing conventional black metal frameworks and traditional ideologies…” (p. 484).

In the short film embedded below, Bruun explains, “I always dreamed about becoming a Huldra, an elf girl, a valkyrie, or the goddess Freja. There are these powerful women in Norse Mythology that have both an element of beauty and mystery, but they are also deadly.” That’s exactly how Myrkur sounds: beautiful, mysterious, deadly. My only complaint is that there isn’t more of it.

Here is a very short film about Myrkur featuring the song “Nattens Barn” [runtime: 2:44]:

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References:

Marshall, Wyatt. (2014, September 16). Shedding Light on the Darkness of Myrkur. Bandcamp Blog.

Patterson, Dayal. (2013). Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult. Port Townsend, WA: Feral House.

Serowy, Ulrike. (2013). Skogtatt: A Novella. Lohmar, Germany: Hablizel.

Veronica Mars: Take the Long Way Home

No surprise: Veronica Mars: The Movie plays to the strengths of the franchise: Veronica’s chronically conflicted convictions, Keith’s ever-watchful eye, Logan’s inability to avoid controversy, the stability of Wallace, Mac, and Piz, and the loyal support of its fans. Full disclosure: I am one of the 91,585 Kickstarter backers of this movie, I watched it three times in as many days, I am a card-carrying Marshmallow, so spoilers and gushing abound below.

Veronica and Logan take the long way home.
Veronica and Logan take the long way home.

So, when the day comes to settle down,
Who’s to blame if you’re not around?
— Supertramp, “Take the Long Way Home”

Though the movie is fully enjoyable to the non-fan, there are plenty of nods to the nerds: the ever-charming Leo’s mention of Veronica’s supposed stint in the FBI, a reference to the trailer for the un-filmed fourth season of the show in which Veronica joins the FBI after college; the New York street musician playing The Dandy Warhols’ “We Used to Be Friends” as Veronica and Piz leave the NPR studio; a squeaky clean Weevil getting caught up in a seedy subplot; Piz getting in another dig at Matchbox 20’s “solo” Rob Thomas; sleepy-dog Clemmons claims that Neptune High has been boring since Veronica graduated; Corny pitches Veronica his homemade wallets, which of course he’s making a killing from on Etsy; when Veronica takes too long to return with drinks, the insinuation that she may have joined a cult arises; Piz and Veronica’s sextape resurfaces at the reunion, revamping both the salaciousness scandals of her Hearst College days and the relentless backstabbing of her high-school years. Not a single on-screen mention of Lilly Kane. Though she is mentioned in the script, the scene is shortened in the movie. Her absolute absence feels stronger than a brief cameo would have.

Veronica Mars

“I find it almost impossible to imagine Veronica Mars played by anyone other than Kristen Bell,” writes Rob Thomas (2006, p. 6), and he’d be hard-pressed to find someone who disagrees. The studio didn’t want Bell, but Thomas fought to keep her. “Had we lost that argument, there would be no show…” (p. 6). Her craftiness carries the movie as it did three seasons of the show. Movie critic Peter Travers (2014) writes, “Plot has never been the attraction in Veronica Mars… [I]t’s how she thinks that draws us in…” (p. 73).

The mystery in the movie is familiar ground for Veronica Mars: a single night of bad decisions buried by a long, elaborate cover-up that includes obsession, blackmail, and murder. As the golden-voiced Cliff would say, “I like this case, it’s tawdry.” Veronica’s unearthing the truth requires the usual hi-tech tools and toys, ill-gotten gadgets and police files, and the help of both friends and enemies. The prescient premise of Neptune, California, “a town without a middle class,” provides just enough social structure and economic disparity to guarantee what criminologists call an anomic ethics: The have-nots will do whatever is necessary to get theirs with no evident moral dilemma (Rosenfeld & Messner, 1997). This conflict view includes the local sheriff’s department, which having never been the beacon of legality has now found a way to leverage its place in the gaping space between the socioeconomic classes.

With such a gulf between the two classes and constant reminders of that gulf, crime is a political concept in Neptune, by definition in place to keep the privileged protected from the poor (see Bonger, 1969 and Vold, 1958). The sheriff’s department, now run by Don Lamb’s more inept younger brother Dan, mediates the disparity by offering protection and service, “to the highest bidder,” as Keith Mars puts it.

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Speaking of, one of the main aspects of the movie that I appreciate as a fan of the show is the consistency with which the characters are handled. Keith is still Keith, the protective father and righteous citizen we all know and love. Gia was present on the plot’s night in question, but she maintains her presence as mildly annoying but harmless. Though he was there as well, Dick is still Dick: aloof but innocent. Vinnie Van Lowe is mixed-up in the mayhem—of course—but not in a way that implicates him as anything other than sleazy as ever. Lamb is just like his brother—only worse. The bad guy is not a character from the show (expertly played by Martin Starr, who played Roman in Rob Thomas’s short-lived but well-worthy Party Down), so we don’t have to hate anyone we already adore from the original series.

Does it feel that your life’s become a catastrophe?
Oh, it has to be for you to grow, boy.
When you look through the years and see what you could
Have been oh, what might have been,
If you’d had more time.
— Supertramp, “Take the Long Way Home”

Veronica Mars: The Thousand-Dollar Tan LineUpon first viewing, I didn’t understand why Rob Thomas insisted that the characters all end up about where they started ten years ago as opposed to having things go in an entirely new direction. As it turns out, a sequel had already been penned, but its story-line requires everything in Neptune be back to “normal.” The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line (Vintage, 2014), which was released today, picks up where the movie leaves off. Veronica is back in Neptune, plans for a big-shot New York lawyer gig scrapped for a return to the sun and sin of Southern California:

Now it’s spring break, and college students descend on Neptune, transforming the beaches and boardwalks into a frenzied, week-long rave. When a girl disappears from a party, Veronica is called in to investigate. But this is no simple missing person’s case; the house the girl vanished from belongs to a man with serious criminal ties, and soon Veronica is plunged into a dangerous underworld of drugs and organized crime. And when a major break in the investigation has a shocking connection to Veronica’s past, the case hits closer to home than she ever imagined.

“In writing an ongoing fictional creature I’m tugged in a couple different directions,” writes Rob Thomas (2006). “There’s the part of me that thinks Veronica should… get past her pettiness. She should learn how to forgive. The other part of me wants to keep her complicated. Difficult. Testy” (p. 148). Some writers and directors have a theme they tend to stick with throughout their work. Darren Aronofsky tells stories of obsession David Cronenberg’s films revolve around the body or the grotesque. Aaron Sorkin writes shows about the inner-workings behind the scenes. If I had to pick a theme for Rob Thomas, it would be getting pulled back in. His characters—Logan, Weevil, and especially Veronica—are always trying to escape their nature or their social milieus. Fortunately for us, they just can’t seem to stay away from trouble.

References:

Bonger, William. (1969). Criminality and Economic Conditions. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Davies, Rich & Hodgson, Roger. (1979). Take the Long Way Home [Recorded by Supertramp]. Breakfast in America [LP]. Santa Monica, CA: A&M Records.

Rosenfeld R. & Messner, S. F. (1997). Markets, Morality, and an Institutional-Anomie Theory of Crime. In N. Passas & R. Agnew (Eds.), The Future of Anomie Theory (pp. 207-224). Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Thomas, Rob (Ed.). (2006). Neptune Noir: Unauthorized Investigations into Veronica Mars. Benbella Books.

Thomas, Rob & Graham, Jennifer. (2014). Veronica Mars: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line. New York: Vintage.

Travers, Peter. (2014, March 27). Kick-Start or Die! Rolling Stone, 1205, 73-74.

Vold, George B. (1958). Theoretical Criminology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Download, Spin, or Stream: Ten Records, 2013

Unlike last year, 2013 found me mostly listening to one strain of metal or another. With the embedded videos and off-site links on this page, I’ve tried to provide a way for you to hear a bit of each of these lovely records. There’s never been a better time to be a music fan.

Deafheaven: Sunbather on BandCampDeafheaven Sunbather (Deathwish, Inc.): I’m not sure what else can be said about Deafheaven that wasn’t said during 2013, but let there be no question that Sunbather is the record of the year. In conception and construction, no other record came close to its heights and depths. As I wrote in my review of the record, even with a space seemingly cut out for them by a family of description-defying groups, Deafheaven is likely to work loose from any label applied to their sound. Neither the bands nor the fans come up with these categories anyway. If it moves us, we don’t care what you call it. In spite of their often caustic heaviness, there’s a pop sensibility in there that can’t help but shine through. Purists of all kinds had plenty of smack to talk, but Sunbather defies category and critique, rewards the repeated listen, and leaves behind the feeling that opposition only makes one stronger.

A Storm of Light: Nations to Flames on BandcampA Storm of Light Nations to Flames (Southern Lord): Late to these ears this year comes the latest from A Storm of Light. Nations to Flames brings together the best of the band’s abilities. The depth, breadth, weight, and ferocity of past outings are all here with a precision their peers often lack (See “All the Shining Lies” for one extreme example). If you still think of them as a side project, it’s high time to stop. Where so many others have stagnated in the past, A Storm of Light is burning new paths in the futures of heavy music.

Cult of Luna Vertikal (Density): On Vertikal, Cult of Luna plays songs about cities composed with the weight of concrete. Not unlike their past few releases (i.e., Eviga Riket, Eternal Kingdom, and Somewhere Along the Highway), this one is the product of many minds working overtime. Unlike the rural themes on those records, the band worked inside the city limits this time partially inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). The companion EP Vertikal II includes Justin Broadrick‘s essential remix of “Vicarious Redemption,” which is ironically and atypically half the length of the original track. Here’s their video for “Passing Through”:

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Wire: Change Becomes UsWire Change Becomes Us (Pink Flag): Wire have been together for nearly 40 years, and they released one of their best records in 2013. Change Becomes Us is made up of reworkings of older, unrealized, and unreleased ideas from Wire’s classic, late-1970s era (cf. Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, 154). It’s also everything they do well in one place. It’s as punk as it is post-everything else, and proves why they’re one of the most influential bands of the late 20th century. If you don’t like “Re-Invent Your Second Wheel,” then we probably can’t be friends anymore.

Seidr : GinnungagapSeidr Ginnungagap (Bindrune Recordings): Though their name comes from Norse religion, Seidr is as low-key as they are Loki. A subtlety that’s often missing from heavy genres is the mark here. With members from some of my other favorite bands (e.g., Panopticon, Wheels Within Wheels, Kólga, etc.), Seidr is more than a supergroup: They are a collective of seers, mapping new territories in consciousness and the cosmos. Ginnungagap is only their second missive, but it sounds like the product of eons. “A Blink of the Cosmic Eye,” “The Pillars of Creation,” “Sweltering II: A Pale Blue Dot in the Vast Dark,” and the title track churn and smolder like dying stars. This is doom on the largest possible scale.

Mouth of the Architect: Dawning on BandCampMouth of the Architect Dawning (Translation Loss): Along with the new releases by Deafheaven and Cult of Luna above, the new Mouth of the Architect was one of my most anticipated records of 2013. Dawning is a sprawling six songs, the least of which is still just under seven minutes long. While they get lumped in with the usual suspects of post-metal (e.g., Neurosis, Isis, Pelican, etc.), Mouth of the Architect’s sound is subtly different in distinctive ways. It’s metal and majestic, heavy and heavenly, gruesome and graceful, and difficult to describe in detail, but you’d be hard pressed to confuse them with anyone else.

Watain The Wild Hunt (Season of Mist/Century Media): In the battle of the most brutal, it’s hard to beat Sweden’s Watain. They just keep pushing further into the darkness. After last year’s Opus Diaboli DVD, it was difficult to imagine how much darker or heavier they could get, but they managed to mangle expectations like so much dead meat. Here’s the absolutely perfect video for The Wild Hunt‘s “Outlaw”:

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My Bloody Valentine: mbv on YouTubeMy Bloody Valentine mbv (mbv): My Bloody Valentine finally followed up on their genre-defying and defining classic, Loveless (1992), with mbv. Like Wire’s Change Becomes Us, mbv is an amalgam of old and new recordings, some reworked from rough drafts done during their demise in the mid-1990s. With nine songs total, mbv is a trilogy of trilogies. It hangs together as a whole, but one can easily discern three movements. Three floes in the waves. After 21 years, this was possibly the first record lauded as much for not existing as it was upon its release. One thing’s still for damn sure: No one does this sound better than My Bloody Valentine.

Light Bearer: Silver TongueLight Bearer Silver Tongue (Halo of Flies): Light Bearer has been not-so-quietly building a body of work worthy of the most discriminate collectors. Silver Tongue is the second of a four-record concept called the Æsahættr Tetralogy. If feminism writ its largest could be an anti-religion, Light Bearer is writing it that large, chapter and verse.

Altar of Plagues Teethed Glory and Injury (Profound Lore): The last word from a band that deserved to be heard much more. Like their American peers Falls of Rauros, Panopticon, Wolves in the Throne Room, and Deafheaven, Ireland’s Altar of Plagues was pushing traditional Black Metal into new territories, and Teethed Glory and Injury is their best statement of purpose yet. R.I.P., A.o.P. Here’s the clip for “God Alone”:

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Others worthy of mention and attention: Portal Vexovoid (Profound Lore), Russian Circles Memorial (Sargent House), Nails Abandon All Life (Southern Lord), Lumbar The First and Last Days of Unwelcome (Southern Lord), Medicine To the Happy Few (Captured Tracks), Run the Jewels Run the Jewels (Fool’s Gold), Palms Palms (Ipecac), Vhol Vhol (Profound Lore), Wolves in the Throne Room BBC Session 2011 Anno Domini (Southern Lord), God is an Astronaut Origins (Rocket Girl Label), and Pelican Forever Becoming (Southern Lord).

Shooting Starlets: Girls Gone Wildin’

The transition from adolescence to adulthood is rarely an easy one. As we watch Miley Cyrus shed her youth in real-time, I am reminded of a young Drew Barrymore, coming out of rehab for the first time at age 13. The movies Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring represent the grown-up debuts of beloved childhood Hollywood princesses, Selena Gomez and Emma Watson respectively. The two films are also similar for their adult themes and media commentary. No one would say that a refusal to grow up is endearing, but resistance is fertile. There’s nothing quite as cool as youthful nihilism — especially when wielded by young women. Live fast, die young: Bad girls do it well.

Spring Breakers

The similarities here remind me of when in 2007 the Coen Brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson both did adaptations—both camps tend to write their own scripts—of stories set in West Texas. No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood are companion pieces in the same way that Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring are, but here the ladies are the ones with the guns.

Spring Breakers‘ heist scene might be the best few minutes of cinema I’ve seen in years. Brit (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) rob the Chicken Shack restaurant with a hammer and a squirt gun while Cotty (Rachel Korine) circles the building in the getaway car with the camera (and us) riding shotgun. Our limited vantage point gives the scene an added tension because though we are at a distance, it feels far from safe. Much like the security camera footage of Columbine and Chronicle, and the camera-as-character of Chronicle and Cloverfield, we receive a crippled information flow while experiencing total exposure. Their mantra: “Just pretend it’s a fucking video game. Act like you’re in a movie or something.”

Alien (James Franco) arrives as the girls’ douche ex machina, an entity somewhere between True Romance‘s Drexl Spivey (1993), Kevin Federline, and Riff Raff, the latter of whom is supposedly suing over the similarities. He bails them out of jail after a party gone astray and takes them home to his arsenal. What could possibly go wrong?

Spring Breakers' Alien

Selena Gomez does the least behaving badly, but her role as Faith is still a long way from Alex Russo or Beezus. As she tells her grandmother over the phone,

I think we found ourselves here. We finally got to see some other parts of the world. We saw some beautiful things here. Things we’ll never forget. We got to let loose. God, I can’t believe how many new friends we made. Friends from all over the place. I mean everyone was so sweet here. So warm and friendly. I know we made friends that will last us a lifetime. We met people who are just like us. People the same as us. Everyone was just trying to find themselves. It was way more than just having a good time. We see things different now. More colors, more love, more understanding… I know we have to go back to school, but we’ll always remember this trip. Something so amazing, magical. Something so beautiful. Feels as if the world is perfect. Like it’s never gonna end.

Spring break is heavy, y’all. “I grew up in Nashville, but I was a skater, so I was skateboarding during spring break,” writer/director Harmony Korine told Interview. “Everyone I knew would go to Daytona Beach and the Redneck Riviera and just fuck and get drunk — you know, as a rite of passage. I never went. I guess this is my way of going.” Ultimately the movie illustrates Douglas Adams’ dictum that the problem with a party that never ends is that ideas that only seem good at parties continue to seem like good ideas.

Speaking of bad ideas, Sophia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, which is based on a real group of fame-obsessed teenagers, is full of them. Not since Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen (2003; which features Spring Breakers‘ Hudgens) has a group of teens been so overtaken by expensive clothes, handbags, and bad behavior. This crew of underage criminals uses internet maps and celebrity news to find out where their targets (e.g., Paris Hilton, Audrina Partridge, Megan Fox, Orlando Bloom, et al.) live and when they will be out of town. Once caught, they seem more concerned with what their famous victims think than with the charges brought against them [trailer runtime: 1:46]:

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It would be remiss of me not to note that two of my favorite composers, Cliff Martinez and Brian Reitzell respectively, put the music together for these movies. The mood of Spring Breakers is mostly set by Martinez in collaboration with Skrillex, Gucci Mane (who’s also in the movie), and Waka Focka Flame, among others. The Bling Ring features a mix of Hip-hop, Krautrock, and electronic pop that reads more eclectic than it actually sounds: Sleigh Bells, Kanye West, CAN, M.I.A., Azeailia Banks, Klaus Schultze, Frank Ocean, and so on. Discounting the importance of music in creating the pressure that permeates these films would be an oversight.

Though these films are both cautionary tails of an extreme nature, they prove that caution isn’t cool. Youth might be wasted on the young, but our heroes don’t concern themselves with consequences.

Mayhem to the AM: Eminem Goes Berzerk

I turned my head for a minute and Eminem dropped this single “Berzerk” from his forthcoming record. The song illustrates everything I love about Hip-hop. It’s not that I miss the era he’s referencing here (I don’t), it’s that he’s referencing things: All kinds of things. Mathers’ use of allusion is masterful, and it’s one of the reasons I study rap in the first place.

Eminem’s sense of humor and of himself is firmly intact. “Berserk” boasts guest shots from and references to “So Whatcha Want?”, Royce da 5’9″, Rick Rubin, Billy Squier’s “The Stroke,” Public Enemy, N.W.A., Kendrick Lamar, Ad Rock, and Kid Rock. It’s a celebration of roots: from rap and rock to the city block [runtime: 4:20].

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More than anything else, Em gets his Beastie Boys on here. Because they, more than anyone else, encompass all of the things going on in this song. Rubin employs his standard formula, which he once described as “reduction” rather than “production.” It’s heard on early LL Cool J records like “Rock the Bells” (1985), Run-DMC tracks like “Rock Box” (1983), “King of Rock” (1984), and the Run-DMC/Aerosmith collaboration “Walk This Way” (1986), and reprised on Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” (2003). But the Beasties’ Licensed to Ill (1986) is the best exemplar. Rubin stripped everything down to just the boom bap: 808s, John Bonham drums, big guitar riffs, and the noises and voices of the boys. The result was resonant and irresistible — and it still works.

The new record, The Marshall Mathers LP2 comes out next week.

Drugs of a Feather: Jeff Noon’s Vurt 20 Years On

A young boy puts a feather into his mouth… The Stash Riders: Scribble, Beetle, Bridget, Mandy, Tristan and Suze… The Thing from Outer Space, Game Cat, Dingo Tush, Bottletown, robodogs, droidlocks, and dreamsnakes… It’s about drugs and droogs. It’s about their misadventures in this and that Other world: Vurt. Scribble’s sister, his lover, Desdemona is lost, lost to the Vurt, that feathered, nethered world spinning somewhere inside of this one. If he is to get her back, if he is to grab her, he has to let go of something else.

Jeff Noon: Vurt

I’m not telling this very well. I’m asking for your trust on this one. Here I am, surrounded by wine bottles and mannequins, salt cellars and golf clubs, car engines and pub signs. There are a thousand things in this room, and I am just one of them. The light is shining through my windows, stuttered by bars of iron, and I’m trying to get this down with a cracked-up genuine antique word processor, the kind they just don’t make any more, trying to find the words.
Sometimes we get the words wrong.
Sometimes we get the words wrong!
Jeff Noon‘s Vurt, (p. 151)

In his introduction to Noon’s Cobralingus (Codex, 2001), Michael Bracewell writes, “Much of Noon’s best known imagery… derives its power from the literalizing of poetic language and the concretizing of images: the sudden opening up, within the landscape of the prose itself, of new routes to character and narrative, enabled by altering the meanings of words within the containers of their language” (p. 6). The Shining Girls author, Lauren Beukes says that Vurt blew her mind, “not just for the story and the characters which absolutely caught the mood of where we were, but pushed language in insanely playful ways and delivered a kicker of an ending.” In her introduction to the new edition, she cites Noon’s best known aphorism: “Form is the host; content is the virus.” To wit, Vurt‘s virus has infected everything from Beukes’ Moxyland (Angry Robot, 2008) to Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts (Canongate, 2007).

According to Jeff Noon, Vurt started as half a play. “I’d spent a good number of years trying to make some money by writing plays, with no real success,” he writes, “So I took a job at Waterstone’s bookshop in Manchester. Someone else working there was a fringe theater director and was always asking me to write him a play.” Noon took Octave Mirbeau’s 1899 novel The Torture Garden and adapted it through the then new idea of virtual reality news of which was trickling over from America via magazines like Mondo 2000. When his director friend moved to Hong Kong, another co-worker started a small press and, being a fan of his plays, asked Noon to try writing a novel. He agreed. “And quite naturally,” he adds, “I took the basic plot I’d added to The Torture Garden as my starting point. It grew organically from that seed.”

Why? A voice told me to do it.
Which voice? The one that never stops.
— Jeff Noon’s Vurt, (p. 177)

VurtI found Vurt via the blurbs on the back of Doug Rushkoff‘s first novel, Ecstasy Club (1997), sometime during the wild-at-heart and weird-on-top 1990s. The music of that time is woven deep in the language of Vurt. Music is “without doubt my favourite art form,” says Noon, “and the one that saturates my waking life from morning till night. So, I always try to use techniques invented by musicians in my novels and stories, simply because musicians seem to get there first these days, in terms of an avant–pulp interface.” Among its pages you can hear the manic Madchester music of Happy Mondays, Stone Roses, The Charlatans, and Inspiral Carpets. Bracewell writes, “More than any other writer of his generation, Jeff Noon has assimilated the techniques developed in the recording of music and pioneered their literary equivalents” (p. 5), and Noon explains, “My main insight was to realize that words, whilst seemingly fixed in meaning, are in fact a liquid medium. They flow. The writer digs channels, steers the course.”

Through the looking-glass course of Vurt, one can see shades of Twin Peaks, A Clockwork Orange, Neuromancer, Snow Crash, Star Wars, Donnie Darko, and Philip K. Dick, among other things. Vurt won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1994, and William Gibson called it “really fresh and peculiar at a time when we were constantly being told that lots of SF novels were really fresh and peculiar, but they often weren’t, particularly.” It is certainly fresh and peculiar — even now. The thing that makes it not only so poignant but also timeless is its passion. Under all of the made-up slang, vivid imagery, adjacent dimensions, drug talk, and other detritus of rave culture, there lies the urgency of a real human heart beating, the heart of a writer who cares about things.

Noon says of Vurt, “Like many a first novel it came out of a weird Venn diagram of influences: Gibson, Ballard, Borges, Lewis Carroll, techno music, dub culture, Mondo 2000, graphic novels, 1970s punk, and everyday life in the North of England in 1993. It’s amazing to think that Vurt is still on its journey, still travelling, and still finding new readers.” The newly released 20th Anniversary Edition boasts a new three-part introduction by the always stellar Lauren Beukes that makes me feel like I can’t write about anything, much less about a book as imaginative and innovative as this. It should also be noted that new new edition is set in a much more readable font than the original version and hosts three new short stories set in the wild, weird world of Vurt. So, if you’ve yet to take the trip, your yellow feather awaits.

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We’re all out there, somewhere, waiting to happen.
— Jeff Noon’s Vurt, (p. 87)

Lauren Beukes’ Tangled Timeline of Transgression

“The problem with snapshots,” Kirby Mazrachi thinks, “is that they replace actual memories. You lock down the moment and it becomes all there is of it” (p. 319). Kirby is one of the girls in The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes (Mulholland Books, 2013), the disturbingly beguiling novel of the summer. Beukes’ easily digestible prose and gleefully nagging narrative betray a convoluted timeline and staggering depth of research. Drifter Harper Curtis quantum leaps from time to time gutting the girls as he goes. The House he squats in his helper, enabling the temporal jaunts. He’s like an inverted Patrick Bateman: no money, all motive. Where Bateman’s stories are told from his point of view in the tones of torture-porn, Harper’s kills are described from the abject horror of the victims. And the victims, who are all strong-willed women with drive and purpose, are only victims at his hand. Otherwise they shine with potential and promise.

Lauren Beukes' Shining Girls timeline. (photo by Morne Van Zyl, Wired UK)

Harper’s havoc reaches roughly from the 1930s to the 1950s and the 1990s. It’s a tangled mess of totems, trauma, and one who got away. As Harper puts it, “There are patterns because we try to find them. A desperate attempt at order because we can’t face the terror that it might all be random” (p. 324). Beukes had her own method, mess, and snapshots to deal with while writing. She has a murderous map, full of “crazy pictures, three different timelines, murder dates…” She told WIRED UK, “It’s been completely insane trying to keep track of all of this.”

The Shining GirlsThe Shining Girls is set in my current home of Chicago, which gave me both a history lesson and a feeling of familiarity. The differences among the decades in the story are as interesting as the use of usual local terms like “Red Line,” “Wacker Drive,” “Merchandise Mart,” and “Naked Raygun,” the latter thanks to the one that got away, the spunky, punky Kirby Mazrachi. It’s one part murder mystery, one part detective story, one part science fiction, and another part love story, but it’s all subtle, supple, and masterfully handled.

1993 is the latest year Harper’s House will go. That’s also the year that Michael Silverblatt of the Los Angeles Times coined the term “transgressive fiction,” a term that aptly describes Beukes’ novel. Silverblatt used the term to describe fiction that includes “unpleasant” content such as sex, drugs, and violence, and coined it in response to the censor-baiting controversy of American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (Vintage, 1991), Patrick Bateman’s nearly choked conduit into the world.

Transgressive FictionIn Transgressive Fiction: The New Satiric Tradition (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) Robin Mookerjee discusses Ellis, as well as many other literary forebears of Beukes and The Shining Girls. From mock epics like Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to the perversions of J. G. Ballard and Nabokov to the cut-ups and borrowing of William Burroughs and Kathy Acker, on up to contemporary deviants like Chuck Palahniuk, Irvine Welsh, and Ellis, of course.

Mookerjee discusses these writers’ novels through the Menippean mode of satire, in which the transgression is total rather than individual, a literary style that “opposes everything and proposes nothing,” as Mookerjee puts it. For instance, in American Psycho, whether Bateman is brushing his teeth or slicing up some hired young thing, his tone never changes. The effect is indirect, general not specific, and pervades the book’s ontology as a whole.

It’s also notable that Transgressive Fiction seriously considers many works of fiction that have often only been vilified in the past, and Mookerjee does it with both conviction and an even hand.

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Here’s the trailer for Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls [runtime: 1:01]:

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